**Special Guest Star** Weekend Film Recommendation: Cool Hand Luke

Paul Newman leads an outstanding cast in Stuart Rosenberg’s 1967 movie Cool Hand Luke

This week, Johann Koehler of Cambridge University follows his excellent guest review of The Sting with his take on another Paul Newman classic. Over to Johann, with my warmest thanks:

This weekend’s movie recommendation is Stuart Rosenberg’s Cool Hand Luke (1967), adapted for the screen from Donn Pearce’s semi-autobiographical novel of the same name, and starring Paul Newman in the title role.

The film begins with Luke’s arrest for decapitating parking metres during a drinking binge. The plot elides his trial and sentencing, and skips straight to his arrival at a local “road prison”, where the Captain (played by Strother Martin) quickly identifies his new prisoner’s nonconformity, as evidenced by Luke forfeiting recognition for distinguished service during the war. The ensuing film is a heady mix of sharp dialogue, impeccable character development and fine cinematography, all of which is steeped in Southern lyricism and religious allegory.

Luke’s nonconformity forms the mystery that much of the film seeks to unravel. Whenever he is questioned about where his inability to adhere to rules comes from, Luke’s response is either cryptic or it is nonchalant. What we can discern, however, is that much of his nonconformity is intrinsically bound up with his extraordinary tenacity. Luke occupies much of his time in the first half of the film setting himself tasks that require fulfilling meaningless goals, ranging from boxing far above his weight to betting on how much he can eat. The rest of the inmates find his tenacity contagious, and Luke’s charisma infects them with the desire to finish the arbitrary tasks the prison guards set for them in much shorter time than they would otherwise require. The script hops quickly between each of these tasks without letting the viewer become too wrapped up in the profound sadness and pathos that saturate the simplicity of the prisoners’ existence.

In addition to Martin’s Captain, the film is replete with magnificent supporting performances, including by George Kennedy as Luke’s best friend Dragline, Jo Van Fleet as his mother Arletta, and a host of familiar faces including Harry Dean Stanton and Dennis Hopper. Look fast as well for a brief cameo by the real-life subject of the film, Donn Pearce.

The cinematography is superb. The film is punctuated by key moments in which Rosenberg relies heavily on extreme close-ups, allowing minute facial expressions to do the work that he chooses the dialogue should not. For instance, both the brutality of Luke’s boxing match with Dragline and the devastating sadness upon hearing the news of Arletta’s death are neatly captured by the close-up shots of the actors’ faces. It’s such a relief when a director provides the space for an actor’s talent to breathe on the screen, instead of the wearisome modern dependence on split-second moves between dozens of camera angles in an effort to imbue scenes with drama.

The ultimate message of the film isn’t so much one of redemption as it is one of reconciliation with loss and resignation to one’s fate. If you’re looking for an uplifting film to start off 2013, look elsewhere. However, if you’re looking to immerse yourself in a beautifully nuanced and thought-provoking world, look no further than Cool Hand Luke.

p.s. Knowing RBCer’s fondness for movie trivia, I’ll give kudos to anyone who can answer the following: Luke is assigned the number 37 upon his arrival at the prison. Without searching Google, do any erstwhile Sunday-schoolers know what Luke 1:37 says, off-by-heart? Hint: it refers to Luke’s unshakeable tenacity.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

14 thoughts on “**Special Guest Star** Weekend Film Recommendation: Cool Hand Luke”

  1. Luke 1:37, “For with God nothing shall be impossible.”

    The specific context is the miraculous pregnancy of Elizabeth, bearing John the Baptist.

  2. I first saw this movie in 10th grade English Expression (thanks Mr. Goldschmidt!). It blew me away in 1970, and still does.

  3. Absolutely loved this film – in my Top 10 Best Ever. Must be Newman’s Best Ever performance. To me, it has a message that the Spirit is always yearning to be Free, even when most downtrodden and almost broken. In the end Luke is the Spirit of all the prisoners, to whom he becomes a cherished legend. Enjoy, anybody who has not seen it already. Others, enjoy again.

    1. “Best Ever Performance”? That’s a tough one, but I certainly agree that Cool Hand Luke is a contender. It might be tied in my book with The Hustler, though.

  4. Much as I like Paul Newman, I really disliked this movie. The religious allegory wasn’t just a minor feature, it was a central and heavy-handed thread running throughout the movie, right down to the final scene where red tail lights are refracted through the camera lens to make a prominent Christian cross.

    Maybe this is just a defect of my ability to enjoy fiction: once I notice something prominently annoying in the telling or moviemaking, I keep noticing it, and it sucks up all my engagement. I had the same problem when I took my kids to see Narnia, even though I knew what to expect.

  5. …where the Captain (played by Strother Martin) quickly identifies his new prisoner’s nonconformity…

    Martin’s character reminds me of the GOP and the next cliff to end all cliffs. They are going to beat the snot out of Obama with that little cudgel while repeating “what we have here is a failure to communicate”. The bad news is that Obama is a Robert Rubin Democrat (unlike Luke I suppose), and the GOP shouldn’t have to beat him too badly before he “gets his mind ‘right'”. Remember that scene where Luke is shoveling dirt from one Boss’s hole to the other (one ditch on the left the other on the right)? Until finally exhausted, Luke gets his mind “right”? That’s where we are speeding posthaste. This movie isn’t going to end well.

    Side note: An interesting life for sure: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Donn_Pearce

  6. One of my favorite movies which I’ve probably watched 20 times. My only problem with it is the transformation of Dragline into almost a twin of Lenny (“Of Mice and Men”) by the end of the picture. He goes from being a canny good ol’ boy who’s the central figure for the other men to a shambling adjunct of Luke. This hasn’t kept me from loving this movie though. Excellent performances by all, especially Strother Martin and Anthony Zerbe (among too many others). Also notable is the final escape scene which is taken (“stolen” would be too unkind) from Paul Muni’s “I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang.”

    1. Among the prison genre, I think I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang is as good a film, and maybe even better.

      You have to compare the ending of Cool Hand Luke to the soft wish-fulfillment that brings The Shawshank Redemption to a close. Andy Dufresne, of course, is innocent (unlike Luke), and his turning-of-the-tables is so improbable that I believe it is a dream sequence, and in reality Andy and Red die at the end.

  7. “… the wearisome modern dependence on split-second moves between dozens of camera angles ….”
    How far is this an effect of digital technology, with (comparatively) cheap cameras and near-costless storage on reusable media, unlike expensive chemical film cameras and stock? Did the trend begin before the advent of digital? Of course, digital doesn’t force editors to chop and change at the speed of music videos, but it does make it easy for them to do so.

  8. That scene where Luke digs and fills in the same hole over and over is a bit of a trigger for me. The “theraputic” boarding school that I was sent to when I was a teen did exactly that to people, among other public humiliations. The Captain’s bit about “getting your mind right” sounds just like the folks who ran that place.

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